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One Cobb Schools board member said she was reassured Tuesday by the district employees who spoke out against budget cuts that would affect their salaries and classrooms during two hearings.
“I really do feel the frustration,” said north Cobb’s Kathleen Angelucci. “I was encouraged that as many people showed up that did. It takes a lot of courage because of fear for retribution.”
The board will vote on its fiscal 2014 budget, which includes cutting 182 teachers, only allowing for half a salary step increase and five furlough days in order to resolve an $86 million shortfall, at tonight’s board meeting.
The first of two sets of hearings to get feedback from the public and employees was Tuesday. The second will be tonight at 6:30 p.m.
Angelucci said there were about 30 people in attendance and according to the comment sign-in sheet, eight people spoke between the two hearings.
In years past, very few, if any, people have addressed the board during public hearings regarding the budget.
Walton High’s head football coach Rocky Hidalgo was the first to speak at both hearings. He has taught in Cobb for 17 years and moved to the area because of the school system’s reputation.
“I’m saddened at the current state of affairs in our school district,” he said. “Our teachers feel subjugated and victimized by their leadership. … We are at a breaking point.”
Since January, he said he has seen an 8 percent decrease in his take-home pay and over the last 10 years, he is receiving $500 less a month in pay.
“We can no longer function like this as educators. … It’s getting to a point where we won’t be able to stay in Cobb County financially,” he said. “Are we in the business of good teachers or cheap teachers? … We love working with our kids but we can’t have our profession devalued any more than it is right now. It’s all on your backs. You need to do the right thing.”
One of Hidalgo’s assistant coaches, Tripp Allen, also spoke passionately about what the budget woes have meant to him and the Cobb Schools’ teaching community.
“Those cuts cannot continue to be our solution each year to our problems. … The No. 1 item that ensures a successful education is student to teacher ratio and highly motivated people working with those students,” he said.
“You have an obligation to create a first-class school system and you’re also going to destroy the county if we don’t fix this problem. I’m from Atlanta and I’ve seen what happens when school systems are destroyed … We gotta fix this problem. These people around here are busting their tails every day. We deserve better.”
Amy Jenson, another Walton teacher, broke down her salary to the board, saying when she entered the profession out of college her take-home pay was $42,000 a year and now, 23 years later, she is still making that same amount.
“After taxes and after benefits, I take home about $150 a day … put in about 50 to 55 hours a week and I have 150 students,” she said. “When you think about what that means my hourly rate comes down to less than $15 that I take home.”
She urged the board to consider what these cuts mean to the individual teachers.
“We’re trying to attract great people into this profession and keep great teachers in Cobb County and the schools depend on great teachers, so I hope that you’ll consider other options,” she said.
Increase local taxes?
Increasing the millage rate, which can legally be maxed out at 20 in Cobb, or going to legislators to reconsider the tax exemption for residents over 62 are two options Jenson recommended.
Walton math teacher Tina Link and Cobb Schools parent Sobia Mufti agreed.
“No one likes to pay taxes … but I’d be more than willing to pay a higher millage rate on my home if it meant that we were going to maintain the quality of education that we’ve come to expect here in Cobb County,” Link said. “Someone is going to have to say that this is what we have to do although it’s not popular and nobody wants to pay more money.”
Mufti said she believed the increased millage rate would be more beneficial to the district as opposed to cutting jobs.
“Can you please find an alternative method to fund the budget that doesn’t negatively impact the quality of education our children receive?” she asked.
Board Chair Randy Scamihorn addressed the group as a whole after the hearings and thanked them for their comments.
“We need to hear from people who want to lend a voice,” he said. “We are with you, not against you. We are struggling to minimize the pain, if not eliminate it. I’m personally open to any and all ideas. I will come and speak with you, visit with you. … Cobb County is my home and this is where I’ll stay till the end and I want us to stay on top and I believe we can.”
Scamihorn also reminded them that the district has two major sources of revenue, property taxes and the state of Georgia and that in the last 10 years, property values have decreased and politicians have issued austerity cuts upwards of $500 million to Cobb Schools.
“Contact your state legislator,” he said. “Ask them where is our money going to and why aren’t they stronger pro-public education?”
Angelucci said she hopes the speakers participate in public comments again tonight.
“This stuff is hard to hear and it’s stuff that we are aware of and understand their frustrations but wish there was something we could do now,” she said, adding that she’d like to get the ball rolling sooner on budget talks next year.
“We don’t need to be complacent about this,” she said.
In the past, Angelucci said she feels like board members have just accepted what was presented by the district staff but, she said, “enough is enough.”
“I want to see a true offering of serious cuts,” she said. “Do I wish we could fix it now? Of course, but the only way we can do that is by really digging into the budget for next year?”
One of Tuesday night’s speakers, Robin Benefield, recommended forming a teacher committee to help dig in and determine what funding is really necessary.
“Over this next year get a committee of teachers, only teachers, not administrators because administrators tend to skew things … let us tell you what we see in our schools that can be cut,” she said.
She also questioned the need for a travel budget and professional development funding.
“If we have people who can’t do their jobs without traveling, get rid of them. Nobody needs to travel,” she said.
As far as the vote tonight, Angelucci said she hasn’t decided if she’ll approve the budget as recommended or if she’ll consider amendments.
“I’d like to hear what everybody else has to say,” she said. “I believe that teachers should have the full step increase, especially if that money comes from the state.”
Angelucci said she still questions some things but “feels good” because they can make changes at a later date to the budget if needed.